The urban incubator: (De)constructive (re)presentation of heterotopian spatiality and virtual image(ries)
First Monday

The urban incubator: (De)constructive (re)presentation of heterotopian spatiality and virtual image(ries) by Wael Salah Fahmi



Abstract
This paper provides an imaginary navigation with the camera’s eye to grasp the psychogeography of post-modern urban spatial fragments, whilst considering the proliferation and fragmentation in production and consumption of phantasmagoric other (‘unconscious’ and ‘hidden’) urban spaces. Through an 'imaginary' Urban Incubator, the paper proposes a (de)(re)constructive reading of a conflation of real cities under space-time compression, mapped into fictional terrain of heterotopian imagery and virtuality. Such urban experimentation within cit(y)(ies) involves a sequence of digital images and video stills, constructing spatio-temporal narratives as means of navigation between imaginary (sense of) place identity, and cognitive imaging. In an attempt to capture the spirit of the 'nocturnal city' as an 'urban navigator' or as a 'flâneur', other (unconscious and hidden) urban spaces in various metropolises are represented as digital collages, experimental diagrams, virtual installations, visual semiotics, and spatial narratives. Digital fragments and diagrams will bring urban images into sharp juxtaposition, 'de-solidifying' the physical and dissolving spatial distinctions between reality and mythical spaces, between the screen and the imagination, between the virtual urbanity of the information machine and the actual urbanity of the city. Such representation will call into play the possibility of a coterminous and dialectic merging of very real city of bricks and a conceptual 'city of pixels'.

Contents

Introduction
Spatial (re)presentation
Urban semiology
Urban images/screens
Heterotopias and (neo)flâneurs
Urban disjunction
The urban incubator and (de)constructive experimentation
Urban futures between virtual diffusion and spatial 'being'
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

By splashing virtuality onto the real world, representation of digital culture has put people into a space of 'total flow', with juxtaposition of their mental images calling to attention the nature of those other (unconscious) and (hidden) spaces within post modern cities (Thrift, 2000). Virtual representation being a transmutation of the known, are thus interwoven into real urban life, thus symbiotically celebrating the new informational needs of our media – polis (Leach, 2002). This gives the new face of our cities a phantasmagoric character (Huang, 2000) wherein the global and local, the familiar and strange, the real and the virtual become inextricably intertwined, whilst creating a 'transnational urban experience' as the ideal of boundless and undefined spatiality predominates a digital age of fragmented post modernity.

Under late capitalism characterised by space and time compression (Harvey, 1989; Jameson, 1991), alternative representational methods of post modern city landscapes are required with respect to production of architectural signs and images (Bermudez, 1995), and with respect to consumption of contested city fabric that enact a variety of (re) (de) constructed local identities within emerging global urban spaces. A fruitful avenue of exploration may well lie in the current article’s proposed experimental interfaces, within emerging networked environment, for intervening in post modern cities’ future developments, whilst examining potentials of digital technologies’ representation of emerging urban spaces. The experimental procedure views post modern urban landscape, as an arena for (re)(de)constructing spatial metaphors (Fahmi and Howe, 2003b), challenging the stable institutionalised construction of space in terms of production of a new ‘hyper-real’ urbanity (Baudrillard, 1993). A series of spatial transformations simultaneously emerge as a simulation of urban experimentation in-between the local and global (glocal), imaginary and reality (Patton, 1995).

 

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Spatial (re)presentation

In late/post modern societies local/global (glocal) tensions, with collision of signs and images (Sassen, 1991), have created a 'transnational imaginary'(Dovey, 1999). The ideal of boundless and undefined spatiality predominated an age of fragmented supermodernity (Ibelings, 1998). This has led to a loss of sense of place, with non-places proliferating transit and informational spaces. With increased mobility and telecommunications, with the rise of new media, and with the emergence of cyberspace, the experience of time, space and place identity has changed (Augé, 1995).

Visions and myths of the city (globalisation, homogenisation, (in)authenticity and universalism) have been instructive in terms of 'other cities' (the embodied, the learning, the unjust), thus 'begin to provide a sense of a city that is constantly changing, that does not necessarily hold together', and the city is regarded as 'a partially connected multiplicity which we can only ever know partially and from multiple places' (Thrift, 1996; 2000). Harvey (1989) viewed collage/montage as the primary form of post-modern discourse on spatiality, with the notion of consumption as assemblage, bricolage, or pastiche, largely replacing that of the functional city of modernism (Rowe and Koetter, 1978). For architects and designers, this collage, consisting of space-time, dimensions, is no longer modelled after nature or the machine, but after cities of the past, which Viler (1992) has described as 'the third typology': text and collage metaphors have been central to the re-conception of culture of consumption (Geertz, 1980), asserting that the world is constituted symbolically, that people organise various aspects of their lives into a coherent assemblage through the medium of culture and consumption.

Derrida's (1976) work was modelled after literary criticism with the (double) reading of the text and interpreting the meaning of culture, and with the need to read spatial ’text’ in terms of the rhythmic occurrence of events. Boyer (1994) read space as a "text", following Barthes' (1976) earlier proposition that 'spatial experience is a discourse and this discourse is truly a language' and that 'architecture of signifiers with no signifieds, is considered a pure play of language'. According to Gottdiener and Lagopoulos (1986) urban space is not a text but a "pseudo-text," because it is produced by non-semiotic processes as well as semiotic and socio-semiotic ones.

Castells claimed that "we do not see reality as it is, but as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture (...) Cultures are made up of communication processes and thus there are no separation between 'reality' and symbolic representation" (Castells, 1996 pp 328, 372-73, 375).

Lefebvre (1991) distinguished between 'representations of space' engaged in by planners and cartographers, and symbolic 'representational spaces' in cities, drawing on shared experiences and interpretations of everyday 'spatial practices' of people, where making space is very much a way of making meaning. Post modern urbanism is conscious of the power of discursive production of urban representational spaces where "people not only live their space through its associated images and symbols, they actively construct its meaning through cognitive and hermeneutical processes "(Lefebvre, 1991,p.39). Discourse expresses human thought, fantasy, and desire and thereby represents human ontologies (beliefs, fantasies, values, and desires about how the world is) and epistemologies (how better understandings of the world might be achieved). Meaning of representational spaces or discourses are never absolute, but always subject to translation and interpretation (Foucault, 1986).

A new urbanity, in the information age, is emerging where boundaries between reality and virtuality are blurring, nothing prevailing but discourses, texts, language games, images (Ellin, 1996). Designers' task has shifted, becoming the collection and assembling of urban elements in Foucault's museum of knowledge, with emphasis on creating legibility and a sense of place. Post-modern era implies a need to re-appropriate the urban in terms of our consumption practices and spatial tactics, and sites of exchanges and encounters (Leach, 2002). The post-modern age is characterised by the commodification of place, privatisation of public space (mallification), fragmentation of spatial experience , globalisation of local culture.

 

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Urban semiology

Barthes’ (1976) semiotic approach was concerned with the how of representation, with how language produces meaning- poetics of space in terms of a system of signs. Systems of signification (semiotics) encompass denotative signs and meta-linguistic systems in relation to culturally specific connotative codes. Such universe of signs includes conception, scientific modes of discourse, and value systems, or socially constituted worldviews of social subjects.

The post modern phrase 'The presence of the past' "...tends instead to draw our attention to the contextual and linear relations of new architectural forms as they relate to past urban images, rather than stressing the differences, the rupture between then and now, here and there, and the memory of things and events that have never and can reoccur in the present" (Boyer, 1994 p. 374 ). The past returns to urban space in its fragmented and imaginary form and creates the city of deconstructed spaces and images, which fractures our sense of urban totality.

Urban Semiotics compress space and time under late capitalism ( Harvey, 1989), as representation of urban experience to produce multifunctional hybrid spaces (Jameson, 1991). This has called for a new aesthetic of cognitive mapping of a city with multiple meanings and images (Lynch, 1960). Cognitive mapping approaches arrive at the signification of the city through the perception of its inhabitants. People perform various roles to (re)construct their urban imageries as conjuring up of various impressions 'in the mind', which may be 'visual', as well as auditory, olfactory, verbal, textual, or of a notational, or symbolic score (Liddament, 2000). The urban environment is reduced to a perceptual knowledge of physical form and urban Imagery, stimulated by urban structure to generate representational methods and narrative systems (Calvino, 1979).

The post-modern context is semiologically represented as a theatrical space, implying a multiplicity of signs (deferred and never fixed), as signified (context and meaning) and signifiers (forms and urban elements) (Leach, 2002), and as imaginary in a deconstructive sense. Conceptualising the post-modern city as a collective collage or a "theatre of memory’ was based upon Harvey's (1989) diagnosis of post-modern representation of urban experience, with the city being a theatrical space, 'a series of stages’, where individuals can assume different identities under space-time compression.

With hypermobility and space/time compression, the city has indeed emerged as a site for new claims and contestation: by global capital, which uses the city as an 'organisational commodity'. The denationalising of urban space and the formation of new claims centred in transnational actors and involving contestation constitute the global city as a frontier zone for a new type of engagement (Sassen, 2003). Compression of time and space under late capitalism has created a situation where people as consumers overcome spatial barriers , with the central value system being dematerialised , and with shifting time horizons collapsing inwards upon us ( Harvey,1989). Post-modern hyperspace has thus succeeded in transcending the capacities of the human body to locate itself, to organise its immediate surroundings perceptually, and to map its position cognitively in a mappable external world (Jameson, 1988).

"Capitalist hegemony over space puts the aesthetics of place very much back on the agenda (...) The construction of such places, the fashioning of some localised aesthetic image, allows the construction of some limited and limiting sense of identity in the midst of a collapse of imploding spatialities" (Harvey, 1989,p.303).

There is no coincidence however that global networks appear simultaneously with the post-modern literary movement. Every major intellectual field and academic discipline has taken a post-modern turn in recent years, challenging or overthrowing modern paradigms and establishing new ones. In post-modernism, there is no central authority, no universal dogma, no foundational ethic, as we emerge into a new global economy and into innovative high-tech society and culture, with novel post-modern ways of life and identities. As post-modern turn results in fragmentation, instability, indeterminacy, and uncertainty (Harvey,1989), network principles renounce rigidity, closed structure, universal schemes and central authority, offering plurality, differences, ambiguity, incompleteness, contingency, and multiplicity.

The interweaving of simulacra in daily life brings together different worlds (of commodities) in the same space and time, concealing any trace of origin, of the labour processes that produced them, or of the social relations implicated in their production. Lash and Urry (1994) stated that post-modernity produced ‘semiotic’ rather than industrial goods, with their mobility in flows changes their nature as they are progressively emptied out of both symbolic and material content and of their traditional local meaning. Such goods often take on the properties of sign value through the process of ‘branding’, in which marketers and advertisers attach images to goods, through introduction of new types of urban place or space for producing, servicing, working, consuming, living (technopoles, intelligent cities) and through the installation of new physical, social and cybernetic infrastructures and through creating new forms of labour market relation (Lash and Urry, 1994,).

In a world of ever-faster change and growing abstraction the process of reflexivity opens up possibilities for the recasting of meaning in work and in leisure and for the heterogeneity and complexity of space and everyday life. Reflexivity is partly based on aesthetic judgments and stems from the proliferation of many forms of real and simulated mobility (Lash and Urry, 1994). Themes of aestheticisation in today's post-modern society reflect the increasing role of consumption as an art form. Whilst sociologists maintained that post-modern society was becoming increasingly fragmented as community groups become less clearly defined, global companies - through sales and branding have developed a new niche of 'fluxus community' based on image consumption. Society's dependence on image and the perceived value of goods has created unprecedented control over people's choices. Multiple selection and combination of 'products' allows a unique spatial experience- the architecture of the post-modern commercial take-away.

 

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Urban images/screens

Urban Images/screens (or architecture of images) (Bermudez, 1995), with hybrid interface between electronic and built media (Pile, 1996), is considered the natural extension of mediatecture (Riewoldt, 1997; Mitchell, 1996) and mediascape (Christensen, 1993) offering (un)built forms with virtual layers, challenging concepts of presence, distance, and time. Media culture has nevertheless put people into 'a space of total flow', with the juxtapositioning of their mental images calling to attention a line of conflict (Jameson, 1991). This is concerned with the nature of those other (unconscious) spaces; heterotopias (places outside of all places), which have become invisible, whilst being a transmutation of the known, being interwoven into real urban life.

"Here we are in Robert Venturi's [post]modern city, not just Las Vegas but any [post]modern city, a mediascape of office buildings and stores transformed by their corporate identities into the new language of consciousness: the sign moulded in glass and light, splashed over with the insignia or characters of logos. Buildings are no longer mass and weight, stone and iron, but an array of sentences spelling out the consciousness of a city, what a city means when we enter it and use its services, consume its goods. The city's language of buildings and streets, of glass and light, is a declaration of ideals (...) which the city achieves by transforming things into words, objects into signs, the dark of nature into neon abstraction and codes (...) the mediascape devours the literal materiality around it" (Christensen, 1993, p.9-10).

"There is no real and no imaginary, except at a certain distance. Because 'reality' or the world now seems to be cybernetically organised continuum of kinetic images, information, and technological artefacts, it appears that value and meaning also have been lost in the transformation" (Baudrillard (1993) in Boyer, 1994 p.492).

Urban images can be seen as both the celebration and critique of the media/information post-modern society. Accordingly importing, sustaining, and 'splashing' virtuality (e.g. art work, cinema, daily news, environmental scenes, video-games, virtual worlds) onto the real world will nevertheless lead to hybrid interface between electronic media (broadcast or wired) and built media (encoded in the urban environment).

In addition to a symbolic equivalence between the physical and the virtual, there is an ontological equivalence, with "digital-space" being made commensurate with "real-space". Not only physical axioms, but also metaphysical axioms are sustained, ensuring that the same epistemological system governing Western thought will continue to operate. Metaphors of cities, of electronic spheres imply that Cyberspace is more than a space, it is "a place and a mode of being". As such, cyberspace prompts humans to "be" differently. Often couched in evolutionary terms, the inhabitants of cyberspace are described as developing non-physical qualities, qualities that pertain to their non-embodiment, and that suit the demands of virtual architecture and virtual physics.

Urban images are therefore the natural symbiotic result of the new material and information needs of our environments, with hybrid interface between electronic media (broadcast or wired) and built media (encoded in the urban environment). Although media may conjure up almost anything into presence, virtuality can only displace but not replace reality, whilst seeking to reaffirm the true meaning of being embodied. New spaces emerge and disappear, they overlap and interpenetrate one another, with the virtual city being at once a transmutation of the known, whilst standing alongside and being interwoven into real urban life (Fahmi,2003a). However with information technology bringing various areas into proximity of one another, spaces constantly juxtapose themselves one against the other, similar to Lefebvre's (1991) image of interpenetrating spaces.

In turn this will invite a refocusing of spatial design, bringing together the material and the informational, the tectonic and the abstract, the real and the virtual whilst re-inscribing these motifs within new practices, new forms, the parameters of which are the ingredients (materials and images), consuming methods (production techniques and spatial diagrams).

 

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Heterotopias and (neo)flâneurs

Past decades have seen the rise of 'a new society of the image' in which consumerism and market frenzy are not the issue so much as 'consumption by the eyes' (Jameson, 1991). It is not simply that urban life has become more superficial, more image- and consumption-based under conditions of late capitalism, but rather that the city in itself has become an imaginary space. The city itself is ‘soft’, in the sense that it is a type of reality for which the boundary between imagination and fact is not absolute (Raban, 1974). This dynamic has affected our sense of ourselves and our lives, with the self being collapsed into its manner of (re)presentation with the border between the 'self' and 'city' becoming fluid.

"Cities, unlike villages and small towns, are plastic by nature. We mould them in our images: they, in their turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose a personal form on them"…. (Raban, 1974, p.10) And "…the city as we might imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate in maps and statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture"(Raban, 1974, p. 10).

Foucault's (1986) concept of Heterotopias (places outside of all places) could nonetheless lead to a more fruitful unpacking of the epistemological and logical factors relating to imagery and semiotics and 'reassertion of spatiality’ (Soja, 1989). Gennochio's (1995) interpretation revealed two different kinds of heterotopias: the extra-discursive one which is the absolute Other, 'external' spaces’ and 'heterogeneous site' capable of juxtaposing in a single real place (with several spaces that are in themselves incompatible); and the discursive other coexisting in an 'impossible space' of a large number of fragmentary, possible, though incommensurable orders or worlds.

Patton (1995) draws attention to the ways in which imaginary cities are written with respect to 'reality'. For some writers real conditions of urban existence underlie the signs they describe, for others there is no distinction between the imaginary and the real (Burgin, 1996). What is of concern is the possibility of reading cities in relation to production of further signs, or urban imageries, rather than the excavation of a foundational real city (the decoding of the urban imaginary). The experiment of reading and decoding post-modern cities is based on a number of actual cities, with different representational methods.

Cognitive mapping of the post-modern city takes on the characteristic of a Baudelairean (neo)flâneur whilst approaching the reality of the vast terrain of city spaces with his investigative gaze. There is tendency to capture the 'logic of the place' in the post-modern city, where spatial changes often outpace the revisions of maps due to its constant space-time compression ( Harvey, 1989). Whilst investigating possibilities for (re)(de)constructing the meaning of post-modern space, in terms of Foucault's (1986) heterotopias (places 'outside of all places') (Soja, 1995), the conceptual approach tackles inscriptions of difference, belonging and sensory experience of navigating the post-modern metropolis attempts at weaving anecdotal observations, encounters and reflections oriented by the metaphor of shifting images.

An attempt to conceptualise the Baudelairean flâneur (Benjamin, 1973) as a multi-layered narrative in post-modern conditions will enable us to a reflexive (and cognitive) understanding of epistemologies.The flâneur as an alternative 'vision' and an image of movement through the urban spectacle of (post)modernity is the "botanist of the asphalt" who walks through the city while exploring shifting social space. More importantly are the attempts at adapting the nineteenth-century figure of the flâneur to a post-modern context (neo-flâneur), as being engulfed in the signs and stimuli of the global flows, whilst witnessing the fetishism of commodification and aestheticisation of image consumption in post-modern metropolis. The neo-flâneur, as an absorbent recipient of post-modern imageries,is a type that is out to take its artistic or aesthetical distance from its consumerist urban surroundings. Post-modern images of the urban self do more than entail an increase in the distancing defence strategies; they paradoxically involve the post-modern phantasmagoria of an absence of distance. In the aestheticised perception of consumers, no form of distance imposes itself.

The fate of the flâneur constantly invites us to consider whether or not the era of globalisation allows the kind of walking space that might liberate the contemporary (neo) flâneur from traditionally defined social space and social relations. To grasp the interaction between urban planners’ spatial theories and individuals’ perceptions of the lived space of the urban, for a critical reading of the utopian discourse, it is essential to examine the way our flâneur’s gaze and cognitive mapping mediates the walker's experience within post-modern spaces. The metropolitan flâneur has also been relocated, to the inside of buildings and malls (the aesthetic cocoon) (Leach, 2001) with the 'outside' being a 'traffic-flow-support-nexus'. The flâneur has been displaced by the post pedestrian type of driver, with the vehicle serving as a cocoon in which the individual finds protection from the dangers of the urban jungle and the phenomenon of 'fried urban nerves'.

City’s imageries invest representation with texture, multiplicity, and intricacy whilst collecting and moving along its principal arteries an immense flux of trajectories, a vivid generation of visual life focused in the depth of its boulevards and avenues, and enclosed within the façade of its buildings. In the peripheral world of the highway, the complexity of the building mass is imperceptible as it fades into a faint image which hardly persists in our memory.The speed of driving creates a cinematographic effect that results in a loss of sensible referents and a decay of architectonic markers.With the cinematographic experience conferring on perceived objects a certain plasticity, the urban experience is reduced to a visual spectacle.

 

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Urban disjunction

Eisenman (1999), and Tschumi (1988) both dismantled the conventions of architecture by using concepts derived from cinema, literary criticism, philosophy and psychoanalysis (Fahmi, 2001). In Cinegramme Folie at the Parc de La Villette, Tschumi (1989) dislocated and de-regulated the idea of meaning as emerging from built form, as constantly 'deferred, differed, rendered irresolute', displaced by 'superimposition and transformations'.

Urban Disjunction rejects the notion of 'synthesis' in favour of juxtaposition of contradictory forces (Tschumi, 1996), thus producing dissociation and difference in space and time (Derrida, 1982). A deconstructive procedure further re-engages analytically in city imaging and new urban installations in public spaces as noted in Lebbeus Woods' visionary work. Considered with analogous comparison of virtual space, Woods' work produced visual effects, suggesting enigmatic purposes, and evoking a new sense of time space (Noever, 1991). His aim was to produce hybrid situations for consumption of a conflation of various commodities and urban images, including built and unbuilt elements, as influenced by history, human experience and contemporary culture, and being mapped into fictional terrain of perceptive imagery and virtual reality.

Therefore urban disjunction overcomes aesthetic borderlines and familiar structural principles, a change in visual habits and a creation of an experimental link between visionary architecture and electronic media, and between real and virtual spaces (Cooke, 1989). Urban disjunction emancipates architectural thinking from the hegemony of functionality, from its traditional elements such as harmony, unity, symmetry), and re-inscribes these motifs within new spaces, new forms, to shape new spatial experiences and representations.

 

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The urban incubator and (de)constructive experimentation

Urban experimentation views proliferation and fragmentation in production and consumption of spatiality as superimposed and juxtaposed layers of (de)constructive imageries. The experiment allows for (re)(de)construction of new spatiality, whilst unravelling the relationship between cognitive imaging and virtual forms, and between deconstruction of institutions and institutionalisation of deconstruction (Wigley, 1995). This is an attempt to replace the neutral, homogenous conception of modernist space with post-modernist figuration of overlapping urban images, fields, and networks, where built and un-built environments intertwine. Urban experimentation produces spatial possibilities which are subjected to functions of (trans)forming, (in)forming and (per)forming (Eisenman, 1999), whilst employing such representational techniques as (Pile and Thrift, 2000); collages (Rowe and Koetter, 1978), diagrams (Eisenman, 1999); montage and narratives (Benjamin, 1979); screens (Deleuze, 1997; Lefebvre, 1991).

An imaginary Urban Incubator is conceptualised in order to produce images of new space configurations, which are collections, aggregations, accumulations of patched-up, extendable, overlapping and developing forms. With the need to suture elements of the splintered post-modern urban, the experiment(s) acknowledges the conflict between imagination and realisation as a driving force for creating and structuring virtual spatial orders, thus operating on the boundaries between virtuality and reality. The Urban Incubator deals with images, which represent multiple and continuously changing interfaces that transcend the nature of physicality by offering built forms of multi-dimensional virtual layers. The immediateness and multiplicity of these (hyper) environments challenge the traditional concepts of presence, distance, and time, whilst delivering an architecture of singular simultaneity, that is an architectural version of Augé's (1995) non-place where anything and everything is (re)presented at least in theory.

A (de)constructive reading is (re)presented of the city of pixels as intermediary (in-between) spaces, similar to Tschumi's event city (1994) and Coates' ecstacity (2000). The city of pixels is understood as a collection of urban fragments being (re)sorted, (re)assembled and (re)connected continually unsettling and disturbing established spatial orders, whilst implying superimposition and interchange (Fahmi, 2005). This is a conflation of existing real cities (Shanghai 2000, Helsinki 2000, Cairo 2000, London 2002, Berlin 2003, Moscow 2003, Barcelona 2004, Manchester 2004, Cairo 2004), with urban spaces being mapped into fictional terrain of imagery and virtuality.

The Urban Incubator, by means of texts, digital images, digital video stills and diagrams, creates symbolic representations, and fantasies to signify an identifiable and imaginary (sense of) place identity, whilst emphasising the use of spatio-temporal mapping, narratives, and people's cognitive mechanisms within urban spaces. The post-modern Urban Experience is represented as consisting of series of superimposed layers of programmes (functions, geometries, infrastructures, buildings) (Tschumi, 1988;1989), influencing, modifying, changing city's structural concept whilst producing fragmentary urban patterns, with historical and topographical factors generating contradictions and tensions (Fahmi, 2000).

The current urban experiment suggests tangible forms for understanding spaces in-between, mediating overlapping images, fields, networks (where built and unbuilt environments are revealed). The experiment opens into prior images and earlier signs, representing a different and autonomous system (a text), presenting 'urban montage', applied in Tschumi's (1989) Parc de La Villette and developed as part of film technique by Eisenstein. In 'montage' independent urban fragments are juxtaposed thus permitting 'a multiplicity of combinations', together with repetitions, substitutions, and insertions.

Conceptual Framework

Urban screens: collages and fragments
Urban images/screens (Bermudez,1995) offer multiple and continuously changing interfaces whilst transcending physicality by offering buildings of multi-dimensional character, and by accessing a hyper-environment , with overlapping layers of (virtual) spaces. Screen interfaces are seen as indices of possibility, with their proliferation enriching our imaginative experience of the city, by producing psychic echoes and reverberations that enliven the senses. Deleuze's (1997) screens become a means of expressing affects of the city by placing images together, mirroring the way in which the city juxtaposes different possibilities, emotions, sensations, and perceptions. They make these qualities into dialectical forces, which are actualised in determinate space-time relations, geographical and historical milieus, and individual people's lives.

Figure 1: The city of pixels as a collective collage, a postmodern representation under space-time compression
Figure 1: The city of pixels as a collective collage, a postmodern representation under space-time compression

This stage of the experiment pulls together a spatial narrative evoking journeys to 'other cities', with such juxtapositions being a montage of urban images, revealing the fragmented nature of post-modern space (Harvey, 1989), with its souvenirs and its myriad connections to 'other' places. There is an attempt to recuperate and reassemble from the fragments, a different picture of the post-modern city , through the flow and distribution of images. This is similar to Tschumi's (1989) follies at Parc de La Villette, where cinematography was exploited to offer new perspective on the city, by bringing many images into sharp juxtaposition, by establishing connections between apparently disconnected elements, and by using multimedia to capture the urban experience.

Urban semiotics: signs and images
The semiotic matrix of city of pixels ’at night’ forms a text of aesthetic representation, with an exhibition of images actively permeating and flexibly saturating the real city, where signs coagulate, logos deliquesce, thus creating a hybrid identity for its inhabitants (Fahmi, 2005). The blurred tracks of the semiotic matrix of post-modern spaces of the nocturnal city’s articulation represent a spatial memory (Boyer, 1994), whilst being regarded as arenas for urban experimentation in-between the local and global (glocal), the imaginary and reality (Fahmi and Howe, 2003b).

Cities will increasingly be seen as brandscapes, where each building markets itself as a distinct sign, or billboard, representing corporate identity and globalisation. The notion of the branded landmark is explored as a major public structure, which will mark place as well as represent chosen brand identities.

Figure 2: Semiotic matrix of postmodern nocturnal city forms a text of aesthetic representation where signs and images create a hybrid identity for its inhabitants
Figure 2: Semiotic matrix of postmodern nocturnal city forms a text of aesthetic representation where signs and images create a hybrid identity for its inhabitants

Urban diagrams
Drawing upon Eisenman’s Romeo and Juliet project for Venice Biennale (1985), methods of diagrammatical layering, scaling, superimposition, is being employed in the experiment, producing a fractal representation of the built environment, with literary narratives being used to dramatise the meeting of the ‘fictional’ and the ‘real’. Image diagrammatic technique lies between spatial and structural analysis and assumes a language founded on the articulation and contradiction of dialectics (centre-periphery, vertical-horizontal, inside-outside, solid-void, point-plane).

Such technique detaches form from its programmatic concerns, and displaces it from its relationship to meaning, whilst being subjected to functions of (trans)forming, (in)forming and (per)forming (Eisenman, 1999). Diagrams offer experimental interfaces for intervening in complex urban processes within emerging networked environment to refresh 'ways of seeing' through the metaphorical (re)(de) construction of space, cognitive codes, and visual elements within urban systems.

Figure 3: Pursuit of pleasure and sights (sites) of highly charged encounters
Figure 3: Pursuit of pleasure and sights (sites) of highly charged encounters

Urban narratives
Boyer (1994) pointed out that the return of post-modern aesthetic to narrative forms, searching for design language that communicates with the public that manipulates simple combinations and patterns that are part of our collective memory. Narratives have formulated architectural fiction whilst binding together stories, myths, and fantasies through plot formation and characterisation within fictional landscapes. With the text remaining central, our environments grow increasingly hyper-real, with people generally exchanging their role as users and becoming readers and consumers (Bergum, 1990).

Urban installations
Urban installations are introduced, including built environment and conceptual (unbuilt) image diagrams as inserted within or superimposed on the fabric of the city of pixels. Corresponding to Coates' (2000) series of possible urban interfaces (tuning in, locking on, letting go, cranking up, flipping out), each installation however presents the clichéd images which advance real place, taking on this mediated space and anticipating a destination seen through the fragmented myths, movie locations or souvenirs. The experiment then casts the experiential tools to explore the city as an individual construct, considering the complex centripetal-centrifugal space, which everybody experiences physically and perceptually.

These installations, regarded as urban icons, respond to events and initiatives to formulate hyper-spatial conditions which are multi-dimensional , multi-physical, flipping and compressing both virtual and real experiences (Baudrillard, 1993). Urban installations do not monumentalise established institutions of culture, corporate headquarters, commercial operations but rather explores new possibilities of urban life and human experience, weaving into existing fabric of the city and becoming a hidden city of entirely unknown purpose or meaning.

Figure 4: Experiencing the cityscape phenomenologically
Figure 4: Experiencing the cityscape phenomenologically

 

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Urban futures between virtual diffusion and spatial 'being'

Castells (1996) argued that power resided in the network, as places cannot exist outside of flows of information, transactions, people, and goods. Places do not disappear, but their logic and their meaning become absorbed in the network. The proliferation of 'non-places'; the bland shopping malls, indistinguishable airports, office blocks, gated communities, theme parks, old-worldly villages, and managed and coifed "wilderness" areas that, functioning as signs rather than places, immerse the user in a self-conscious form of ritual bearing little relation to any actual time or location.

As intense uniformity is produced via the rigorous programming that commercial interests demand, cultural difference is absorbed, with the global reach of networks saturating world screens with homogenous stream of images and flows. Screen culture inhabits neither place nor ground: it is fragmented and dislocated, it operates on a surface that is ephemeral and mediated, and it has a four second attention span. The ever-expanding, continuously on-call individual, becomes another kind of interface, for ever screening, filtering, ignoring, accepting, and repressing the plethora of inputs, information and demands for action that absorb his or her private space and individual time.

Reflecting trends in poststructuralist theory, this exchange between the individual and the electronic media and telecommunications environment is discursively represented as the achievement of a polymorphous, heterogeneous subjectivity, a 'liquid identity, a post human' freed from the bonds of the autonomous subject. Subjectivity is performed as a new kind of text while the body becomes a permeable surface, adorned with signs and riddled with the inscriptions and prescriptions of culture. In this context, the hinge between cyber and space conveniently slides between ontology and post-modern "body-as-text". Cyberspace is established as an "other" place to enact the deconstructed self; a self whose multiplicity and ambiguity is continually reinforced as the body seems to increasingly inhabit the dematerialised world that technology creates.

Seeing, and the poststructuralist framework dominated by the mediated image, is replaced by being, and the supposedly unmediated experience of immersion. The body-as-text elides the distinction between the screen and its viewer by ignoring the actuality of the screen and elaborating instead the metaphor of virtual space. The 'as if you are there' is truncated to a 'you are there'. One is in cyberspace, not watching it; one is a navigator, not a viewer, with this shift being in line with modernist ambitions of eliding the gap between signifier and signified, viewer and viewed, real and representation. In the high modernism of virtual rhetoric this ambition travels with its own ideology: the 'being-in' of cyberspace which does not allow the subject-object distinction to interfere with the cybernaut's mythic immersion in what is often represented as a mystical space, thus shifting from a mode of manipulating representation to manipulating ontology.

The boundaries between urban conditions are blurring whilst being influenced by forces of global capitalism. Beckman (1998) argued that globalised liquid 'soft architectures' of digital media flow over, under and through the local concrete and 'hard architectures' of our contemporary cities, creating an indeterminate, 'floating' environment, an interface between public and private, collective and subjective, provincial and planetary. Architecture of cities needs no longer be generated through the static conventions of plan, section and elevation. Instead, buildings can now be fully formed in three-dimensional modelling, profiling, proto-tying and manufacturing software, interfaces and hardware, thus collapsing the stages between conceptualisation and fabrication, production and construction. Iconographic assemblies are absorbed, reworked, and distributed globally in various forms and embodiments. The icons that comprise this new landscape of difference are essentially mediated reflexes of similarity and diversification (constructs that are mirrored endlessly over computer networks, home pages, televised imagery, advertising campaigns).

According to Castells (1996) such emergent dimensions and new communication system radically transforms space and time. Localities become disembodied from their cultural, historical, geographic meaning, and reintegrated into functional networks, or into image collages inducing a space of flows that substitutes for a space of places. In the information society the dominant form of social time is what Castells (1996) called timeless time, 'the annihilation and manipulation of time by electronically managed global capital markets'.

Today, in a post-industrial age, technologies of communication and computation, real-time connectivity and interface, represent an ever-accelerating world (Beckman, 1998). As the city of pixels represent interfaces to the net, the appearance of solid permanent buildings is challenged by virtual representation of abstract systems (electronic images). Whilst a non-local trans-urbanism is in the making, freed from a fixed geometry, the virtual city will not be the post-physical city, but a transmutation and a transgression of the known, interwoven into real urban life. We tend to operate in topographies that weave between actual and digital space, as we are increasingly relocating activities to digital spaces and locating digital capacities in the human body (Latham and Sassen, 2004).

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

The experimental procedure has allowed for the (de)construction of public spaces and for the presentation of diagrams that identify the relationships between cognitive image and virtual forms (Fahmi, 2001; Fahmi, 2002). As based on appeals to ontology rather than epistemology, to authentic being rather than mediated seeing, virtuality rhetorically expand ever outwards, encompassing an infinity of spaces, times, mythologies, and modes of transcendence, appropriating inner space.

The use of image diagrams, collage sketches and screen installations led to 'de-solidifying' things and dissolving spatial distinctions, to (de)constructing perceptual shifting between figure and ground, near and far, inside and outside, with these evocative diagrams intensifying the cognitive process. The experiment intended to unsettle ‘memory and context’ by rejecting both ‘contextualist’ and ‘continualist’ approaches, and favouring conflict over synthesis, fragmentation over unity, madness and play over careful management, indicating the change in the notion of collage images by the multiplication of screen installations, with these representations being products of particular notions of spatiality. There is a need to revisit the post-modern subject, where corporeality and environment has been literally infiltrated by cyberspace, which is repositioned as the locus of techno-institutional forces.

Zelner (1999) illustrated that in (re)(de)construction of the virtual and the real, everyday experience is mirrored in another reality, between the virtual urbanity of the information machine and the actual urbanity of the city, calling into play the possibility of a coterminous and dialectic merging of very real city of bricks and a conceptually experienced 'city of bits' (Mitchell, 1996). With navigation into a trans-urbanism in terms of turning-inside-out of cyberspace, these experimental diagrams promise to occupy the coterminous territories of the real and the virtual.

Virtuality is considered a psychological mechanism and cognitive adaptation in a less 'user-friendly' living environment, with imaginative space being used as a medium for 'bringing forth' or manifesting abstract ideas into the realm of virtual place (Heidegger, 1977). As a central metaphor within the notion of 'being', space provides a means of negotiating the ontological status of virtuality, having sufficient ambiguity to enable the discourse to drift between reality and mythic spaces, between 'the space of the screen', 'the space of the imagination', 'outer space', 'cosmic space', and literal, three-dimensional 'physical space' (Davies, 1998). The power of space lies in the possibilities it implies: immersion, habitation, 'being-there', unmediated presence.

Heidegger (1977) wrote that "the essence of modern technology is by no means anything technological," the issues he raises are fundamentally ontological, dealing with the 'being' of being human as much as the being of technology (Heidegger, 1977 in Dyson, 1998). This link between two essences, the human and the technological, is articulated in the popular discourse on cyberspace, constantly mapping and regulating perceptions of new communications technologies such as Internet, 'information superhighway', and new media forms of electronic agora and 'virtual reality (VR)' (Graham and Marvin, 1996). The ontology of cyberspace signals the attempts to assign 'being' as an attribute to these new forms of media and communication, a play within the field of metaphor, fantasy, and 'consensual hallucination' (Gibson, 1989).

Utilizing complexity theory and concepts fashioned on the paradigmatic logic of biological systems, Kelly (1995) envisioned a technologically deterministic future with radically different forms of social and organisational control, which regards technology as the agency of a new economy, culminating in a transition from a hierarchical social order to a 'network culture based on counter-intuitive principles. He demonstrated a paradigm shift whereas everything ranging from literary texts to market institutions are seen as 'complex' and/or 'self-organising' systems (Kelly, 1998).

Negroponte (1996) presented the post-information age or the future digital life of mediating technologies in terms of bits, interface and digital life. With decentralisation, globalisation, and harmonisation, Digital Spatiality has emerged with five forces of change transforming culture, infrastructure, and economy and lifestyles: global imperatives; size polarities; redefined time; egalitarian energy, and meaningless territory. Negroponte's (1996) description of the growth of digital technologies as 'almost genetic in its nature' evoked the organic metaphor of exponential growth to describe the dynamic rate and self-organising character of change. Forms of knowledge demand critical theories of power, as well as normative and utopian visions that contextualise technology within a social, political, and economic framework, and that assess implications of new technologies.

The virtual is real but not actual, ideal but never abstract. Indeed, the two sides of this purported dialectic, the real-actual and the virtual-imaginary are akin to oscillating forces in a shifting field, existing not side-by-side but through and across each other. If they are entities at all, they share functions and space over coterminous territories, or overlapping regions of nonexclusivity: an architecture capable of addressing and choreographing - the dance between the doubled worlds of the real-actual and the virtual-potential is beginning to (re)present itself. With investigations into a topology of relational, mediated human, or 'trans-architectures', in terms of turning-inside-out of cyberspace, 'hypersurface' experimental forms promise to occupy the coterminous territories of the real and the virtual.

According to Boyer (1994) a 'crisis of collective memory', a shared disjunction of our relations to the past, is linked to rapid urban change as modernism and industrialisation disrupts the myriad of ways in which cities house a collective sense of history. The crisis of collective memory provokes a desire to reframe the past in urban scenography. Such scenographic representations repress the mystery and disorder of urban life, which is collapsed into 'scenes', as seen in the shopping malls and housing enclaves, where history becomes a product which is packaged and consumed. The deconstructive task leads to a play of formal imagery, whilst aiming to unpack and reconstruct the life world and its spatial programs. The key role of future city designers is to deploy creative imagination in the public interest, yet it must be divorced from Plato's ideal forms' and authoritarian politics.End of article

 

About the author

Wael Fahmi was trained as an architect at Cairo University and received his PhD in Planning and Landscape from the University of Manchester (UK). He teaches architecture and urban design as an Associate Professor of Urbanism at the Architecture Department- Helwan University in Cairo. Through his studio Urban Design Experimental Research Studio (UDERS) he explores deconstructive experimentation within urban space, post-modern spatiality and representation of city imaging employing narratives, digital photo imaging, video stills and architectural diagrams.

E-mail: uders2004 [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk

 

Acknowledgements

This article is based on two conference paper presented at CORP2005- The Tenth International Conference on Information & Communication Technologies (ICT) in Urban Planning and Spatial Development and Impacts of ICT on Physical Space - Vienna University of Technology –22-25 February; and at Planning Research Conference 2003- Oxford Brookes University 8-10 April.

 

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The urban incubator: (De)constructive (re)presentation of heterotopian spatiality and virtual image(ries) by Wael Salah Fahmi
First Monday, Special Issue #4: Urban Screens: Discovering the potential of outdoor screens for urban society
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